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A Visit With Author Colleen McCullough

Posted By Judy Huston On April 3, 2007 @ 8:36 pm In Australia,Fiction Reviews,Writers | 12 Comments

Colleen McCullough

Genre-hopping is nothing unusual for Colleen McCullough, bestselling author of The Thorn Birds and 16 other highly diversified works. Her oeuvre to date ranges from the heart-warming simplicity of her first book, Tim, to the quirky charm of one of her latest, Angel Puss, interspersed by varied endeavours including the massive Masters of Rome historical series and even a cook book.So it’s not really surprising that she has now joined the “whodunnit” brigade with On, Off, a chilling tale of mystery and mayhem set in Connecticut in the mid 1960s. “It’s a complete departure for me,” she agreed cheerfully during lunch at an outdoor café in Willoughby, a pleasant suburb on Sydney’s lower North Shore. “But then so was Angel Puss, and so is every book I write. The publishers hate it with a passion, because they don’t know what the new sales are going to be like.”
McCullough’s latest switch was not designed deliberately to make things hard for her publishers. Behind it were two reasons, one professional and one personal. The professional reason is simple. “I wanted to write a book in every genre. It has always been one of my ambitions,” she said. The second, more poignant reason is influenced by the feisty, down-to-earth approach that has made her a firm favourite with her fellow Australians, who elected her a Living National Treasure in 1998. It is a direct result of discovering, during a routine visit to an ophthalmologist, that she suffers from hemorrhagic macular degeneration, a condition that affects the central part of the retina. While her right eye is “hanging in there” the left eye now has only a little peripheral vision. Laser treatment and regular checkups take her to Sydney every couple of months from the subtropical Norfolk Island, about a thousand miles east of Australia, where she has lived for many years. The treatment helps, and doctors tell her a cure may be just around the corner but, unless this happens soon, the worst case scenario for McCullough is eventual blindness.
It was this possibility, combined with her desire to write in all genres, that led her to try a whodunnit. “I don’t have to do a lot of research for them, the prose is crisp and bald, and I find it easy to keep plot twists in my head,” she said. “So I feel it is the genre that would give me the most amusement and pleasure as a writer, combined with ease for people who had to write from my dictation.” The mixture of fatalism and optimism with which McCullough is approaching the possibility of blindness is influenced not only by her upbeat, positive personality but also by her own medical background. Born in Australia on June 1, 1937, she qualified as a neurophysiologist and worked in Sydney for five years before leaving for England in 1963. After several years at the Hospital for Sick Children in London and the Midland Centre for Neurology and Neurosurgery at Smethwick, near Birmingham, she was enticed to the United States by the offer of a job as a research associate in the neurology department at the Yale School of Internal Medicine in Connecticut.
She spent 10 happy years there, studying, teaching and pursuing the hobbies of painting and writing which she had enjoyed since childhood. It was a life she would have been happy to continue, especially as she had no intention of marrying, a decision sparked by the unhappy domestic life of her parents. But while academic life was good, there was one major fly in the ointment: as a female scientist, she was paid about half the salary received by males doing the same type of work. Apart from recognising the injustice of this situation, she knew it did not augur well for an unmarried woman. “I loved being a neurophysiologist, but I didn’t want to be a 70-year old spinster in a cold water, walk-up flat with one 60-watt light bulb, which is what I could see as my future,” she said.
Deciding she needed to earn extra money, she first considered painting. She liked painting portraits and still life in oils, and had staged a couple of successful exhibitions in Connecticut, but suspected it would be a hard way to earn a living. That left writing. She had written for years for her own amusement, without trying to have anything published, but now set about producing something saleable, writing at night while working during the day.
Her first novel developed from an experience when, as a neurophysiologist, she had a conversation with a mentally retarded young man and a much older woman she assumed was his mother but who, she later discovered, was his wife. After getting over her embarrassment at making such a mistake, she began to muse about how such a couple might have met, musings which resulted in the publication of Tim in 1974. Tim attracted good reviews and sold well enough for McCullough to decide that was indeed the way to earn some extra income.

That was all she expected authorship to bring her, but the astounding success of her second novel, The Thorn Birds, changed all that. Even before it was published in 1977, the American paperback rights were sold for what was then a world record figure of $1.9 million. The Thorn Birds went on to become an international bestseller and, in 1983, was adapted into a television miniseries which has become one of the most-watched of all times. This epic family saga, focusing on forbidden love between a woman and a priest, was not greeted with uniform praise by literary critics, especially the more cerebral ones. “The fate of The Thorn Birds will certainly not hang on literary merit,” remarked a Time reviewer. But the reading public had no such reservations, with the book soon translated into more than 20 languages and winning fans for McCullough around the world. It also brought about irrevocable changes in her life.
“I could see that to continue my medical career was an impossibility,” she said. “To do useful work, one needs to be anonymous.” As a single woman living alone she also wanted to be safe, easier said than done for someone attracting celebrity-style attention. But the answer to the dilemma occurred when McCullough returned to the southern hemisphere to be closer to her ageing mother, a move she is the first to acknowledge was prompted by duty rather than affection. Her brother and only sibling, Carl, drowned in Crete in 1965, a tragedy McCullough still finds too distressing to talk about, and she was her mother’s only close relative. “I thought I should live closer, but I didn’t want to be on the same piece of land as my mother,” she said. “She was a hard person to get on with, and not a very good mother. In all our lives with her, my brother and I never got a hug or a kiss. She was that kind of mother, and my father was anywhere but at home. At the same time we were raised with a sense of duty, and duty to me is as important as love, if not more important. My book, An Indecent Obsession was about duty.”
McCullough found a happy compromise by settling on Norfolk Island where, she was assured, anyone could live safely alone, and where she has lived and written since 1980. Her intention to remain single went by the boards in April 1984 when she chose her lucky day, Friday 13, to marry planter Ric Ion-Robinson, a descendant of the Bounty mutineers. His ancestors also include a First Fleet convict, Richard Morgan, who was the protagonist of McCullough’s book Morgan’s Run. She based Morgan on her husband, who she describes as “an interesting man and a stoic.”
Life on their island property is seen by some as idyllic but, for the gregariously-inclined McCullough, it has some major drawbacks. “I hate living on Norfolk Island in many ways, but I’m married to a Norfolk Islander who won’t live anywhere else,” she explained. Problems include the enforced monotony of the diet – “getting things freighted in is difficult and expensive, so if you’re a good cook it’s hard finding anything to cook” – and the scarcity of stimulating conversation on an island populated by only about 2000 people, all of whom know each other well.
If she could, she would love to live in Connecticut again. “I like America and Americans more than I like Australia and Australians,” she said. “I found a lot more equality there and also a lot more education among women.” However, she values her relationship with her husband too much to contemplate such a move. “He would just pine away and die. He’s so Polynesian,” she said. They compromise with overseas holidays and frequent trips to Sydney where they now rent a permanent apartment.
Although the visits to Sydney are dictated mainly by the need to visit eye specialists, McCullough enjoys them, delighting especially in the city supermarkets with their profusion of fresh and varied food. Even her husband is resigned to absences from Norfolk Island now that they have their own apartment.
“There are things he can do there,” McCullough said. “He’s a natural handyman, like all Norfolk Islanders. They work things out in their minds first before they drill a hole or hammer a nail. It’s the way I work on my books, planning everything out first before I start writing.” This organised approach served her well as she launched into the writing and editing of her first whodunnit, an area of writing she feels she has already studied thoroughly because she is such a tremendous fan, as well as a stringent critic, of the genre. She described the enigmatically entitled On, Off as “a cross between an Agatha Christie and a modern American serial killer story.”
“I deliberately set it back in the 1960s so that my hero, Lieutenant Carmine Delmonico, has to do everything the hard way,” she said. “There wasn’t the knowledge of DNA or the awareness of the psychology of serial killers that we have now, and he doesn’t have the help of technology such as computers and mobile phones.”
She has also made sure that Delmonico doesn’t have too many personal problems to distract the readers from the question of “whodunnit”. “One of the things about modern whodunnits that irritates me is that the cop hero is either a drunk, an unhappy divorcee or has a boss who makes life hard for him,” she said. “I get so fed up with what are basically sub-plot ploys, and which detract from the main interest of the book. My hero has great bosses and although he’s a divorcee he’s not a bitter one. And he doesn’t try to be intellectual like some whodunnit heroes. Poor old Carmine says he’s ‘just a wop cop from Connecticut’”.
Whether Carmine Delmonico will make a return appearance in a second novel will, according to his pragmatic creator, depend on the response of readers. But whatever happens with this book, and whatever happens to her sight, McCullough has no intention of giving up writing. Her books, she says, are her babies. She inherited two stepchildren when she married and has never regretted not having children of her own. Writing has more than satisfied her creative urge. If the worst happens and total blindness descends, she will employ readers and typists to help with her work.
With On, Off now in the book shops, McCullough has turned to Antony and Cleopatra, the final volume in her six-part Masters of Rome series. “I’m a workaholic,” she said. “I’m no sooner over one book than I have to start another. Otherwise I get bored, and everybody around me hates it. They all say: ‘I wish she’d start another book and get out of our hair!’.”
Fortunately for her fans, Colleen McCullough does not see boredom as an option.


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